October 27, 2017 / 1:45 PM / a month ago

Bulgarian workers rally for higher wages as economy motors on

SOFIA, Oct 27 (Reuters) - Thousands of Bulgarian workers rallied in Sofia on Friday, demanding a fairer share of benefits as the economy of the European Union’s poorest country motors on and slowly closes the wealth gap to its richer western peers.

Over 4,000 workers including doctors, miners and civil servants gathered in front of the government building in the capital’s centre holding placards and chanting “We want our money”.

The centre-right government plans to raise state salaries by an average of about 9.6 percent in 2018, well ahead of an inflation rate expected to edge up to 1.4 percent next year.

But the pot will be heavily weighted towards certain professions, with teachers set to receive 15 percent, and has no bearing on private-sector wage settlements.

The average monthly wage in the Balkan country rose by 9.9 percent in the second quarter to 1,040 levs ($618), but remains one of the lowest in the 28-member EU.

Low wages are one of the main reasons Bulgarians have left to seek a better life in the West. About 1.1 million have emigrated since the fall of communism 28 years ago.

The economy is forecast to grow 3.9 percent in 2018, when the government plans a small budget deficit of about 1 percent of gross domestic product, providing a much-needed cushion for state coffers.

Under government plans, minimum monthly pay will also be increased by 11 percent to 510 levs from next year and reach 620 levs by 2020, but unions want more.

“We want all (monthly) salaries to be increased by at least 100 levs, both for those who work in companies and firms as well as for those who rely on the state budget,” said Plamen Dimitrov, leader of Confederation of Independent Trade Unions.

“We want Bulgarians to stay in Bulgaria. We think this can happen only with income increases.”

One protester, 60-year-old doctor Julia Kisimova, told Reuters: “I work at the emergency ward, the hardest place and at the same time I work at a private hospital. To be able to meet our needs, to be able stay in Bulgaria, we have to work in two or three places.”

$1 = 1.6824 leva editing by Radu Marinas and John Stonestreet

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